In this episode, doctoral student and producer Muira McCammon talks to trans cartoonist Carta Monir about her writing process, the fluidity of technology, and the ways in which comics can serve as a welcoming medium for artists with trans, queer, and non-binary identities.
Aaron Shapiro: Welcome to Media at Risk, the podcast from the Center for Media at Risk, at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
In this episode, doctoral student and producer, Muira McCammon, talks with acclaimed comic Carta Monir, about what makes the space of trans cartoons, comics, and graphic novels so exceptional and risky. We learn that unlike previous generations of comics in which risk-taking meant exposing the dark underbelly of society, in today’s world the rotten floats to the surface and innovation means using the medium to grapple with vulnerability and to represent non-normative bodies. Hope you enjoy it.
Muira: At the Center for Media at Risk, we’re taking this episode to think about the evolving world of entertainment, by chatting with Carta Monir, a trans graphic novelist, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Carta: Wow. I mean, apparently I’m pretty great. My name is Carta Monir. As to who I am? I would say I’m a transgender woman. I’m married. I live in an apartment. I’m trying to think of other fun facts about me that- that your listeners might appreciate. I’m quite tall. I have long hair. Like, what are you looking for here?
Muira: Carta makes comics about identity, technology and the future of our digital selves. Many of them pose provocative questions about what it means to be trans, and how we talk about sexuality on the internet. She’s also the host of We Should be Friends, a podcast that brings comics together to chat about all things big and small.
Carta: Like, early on, I would say that, like, a lot of beginning cartoonists, I sort of flailed around for, like, what sort of storytelling was interesting to me. So, like, a lot of, like, horror and fiction and sort of, like, whimsical things. I would say that like the biggest development in terms of my work, has been letting go of the fear that I used to feel, about telling stories about my own life. And so, at this point most of the stories I tell are related to my true experiences, in one way or another. And I would also say that a lot of the stories that I tell at this point, are framed through the lens of technology and the internet, because of how formative and important those things are, in my own experience. And I think, like, pretty universally, to people my age, and especially to trans people my age.
Muira: I feel like the internet is such a turbulent place right now. So I guess I’m wondering how you, how you approach the process of incorporating such a fluid and ever-changing space into your work?
Carta: I did a comic a while back, told entirely through the Facebook interface, and even as I was doing that, I was like, this is like a comic, with a very specific time limit, because, like, the Facebook interface is going change again, like it has, you know, twenty times. These things that I’m being very specific about, aren’t going to read the same way to someone a few years from now. But I also feel like it doesn’t super matter, because, even as interfaces change, and the web changes, there are certain kind of abstract elements that remain pretty consistent that people can recognize.
So, like, something I incorporate a lot into my comics is, like the Microsoft Windows 95-style, like window, application window, with like the little bar at the top and then the minimize, and, like, resize, and close buttons. Not because, like, I think that that is, like, representative of, like, how all computers look, and especially, like, not on smartphones and things. But, like, people understand that, like when you put something in that kind of frame, like, it very quickly communicates a sort of message to the reader, like, this is technology, this is, like, something that can be closed. This is something that can be modified in some way.
Muira: Yeah, I’m learning so much. No really, I, because I’ve encountered a lot of people who tend to dismiss cartoons as a sort of sub-par form of entertainment, compared to say, TV shows, novels, and movies. And I guess, I’m curious to know what, what drew you to the medium, and more importantly, what makes it special.
Carta: Sure, I mean, I think there are a few things that people will say when they talk about comics, and, like, you can have a lot of control, you don’t need, like, a budget, create entire universes with only a pencil, like, you know, that sort of stuff? On a personal level, I really like comics because they feel personal and kind of intimate in a similar way to, like, poetry. The type of comics that I generally like, are done by one person, sometimes two people, and tend to be about, like, more vulnerable experiences, also.
And I’ve seen people talking about this before, specifically, the transcultural critic, Sara Horrocks, that comics are an ideal medium for depicting trans people and trans bodies, and I’ve talked about this before a little bit.
But, in prose, if you’re writing a character, you’re kind of limited by, like, at some point, you need to insert pronouns, you know, like is this character a he, or a she, or a they, or whatever. And then also, if you fastidiously avoid using pronouns, that really sticks out to a reader. And also in prose, if you want to talk about, like, cues, like clockable cues, like how could a reader start to infer that this character is trans? It feels very obvious, you know, you, like, write about, like, someone’s big hands or Adam’s apple, or you know, stuff like that.
And film also has problems, because like in film, there’s a question of actors, are you using a cisgender actor to play a trans person? Are you using a trans person at a different point in their transition? So, comics offer a really interesting in-between because you are working solely with visual representation, so, it’s really, in the hands of the artist to decide what and when to disclose about these characters. And also in comics, like, you aren’t working with an actor so you can draw, like, your ideal body, your trans body, your fluid body, without it sticking out as much. Like you have so much more control over the portrayal of trans-ness in comics.
Muira: Some things about Carta: In 2017 the AV Club named her as one of the 10 female cartoonists that you need to know. Chris Plante, an editor at Polygon, said recently, that her work “gracefully explores loss, control, and the unexpected objects that bond us.” Also, she takes great selfies.
I have only just started to learn more about, you know, the global community of queer and trans graphic novelists, and, um, I’m curious to know, like, what words you’d use to describe the community, and also, you know, what, what obstacles you think, the community faces today?
Carta: I would say the words I would use to describe the community, like, I would say, growing. I would say, completely innovative, like, the trans and gender non-conforming and queer comics artists that I’m familiar with are doing some of the most interesting work. And I would say that they’re able to do that work and this fits neatly into the struggles that this community faces. It’s easier to have, like, a vibrant punk scene, when there’s like, no chance of anybody making money. And that’s one of the problems, because, like, there’s not competition in the same way that there would be if there was a lot of money in this community.
I often do compare indie comics to poetry, you know, if you were to go to, like, a poetry convention, you’re not expecting to see, like, all of these cutthroat people competing for, like, movie deals with their poems, right? And it’s kind of the same in indie comics, like, nobody had an expectation of suddenly striking it big, or, like, fighting for a lot of money or whatever. If you get a publishing deal, that’s great, but like, in comics, especially, at this scale, a publishing deal means, someone with, like, a little bit more money than you is willing to, like, print your comics. But like, you know, like, it doesn’t really mean anything in terms of financial stability. It just means that you don’t have to print your own comics anymore.
It’s a good scene for young people, and especially young people from vulnerable communities because, like, there’s not really an entrance fee to get in. It’s a small field. Um, and there’s something I really like about it, I wish there was so much more money in the field, but, like, the fact that it’s all of these people who are sort of fighting together, and, like, struggling together, and, like, working extremely hard to improve one another, that’s a culture that I really enjoy and respect.
Muira: I wanted to ask another question. I was just wondering what advice you’d give to, you know, the next generation of, you know, trans cartoonists and graphic novelists who are, you know, new to the scene, and figuring out their place?
Carta: I would say, find friends to make work with. Because, like, having people around helps a lot. And, like, that includes online, obviously, like, but it really helps to have people to send your work back and forth with and, like, give honest critique to. I would also say, like, be bold, be bold in the kind of stories that you’re telling. When it comes to personal narrative, the threshold for like, it being interesting, is always higher than you would expect. If you’re telling a story about your life, it’s better not to hold back as much as possible, and that’s something that, like, I struggled with for such a long time. But like, at this point, I feel like, if I want people to understand the weight of certain experiences, I just need to kind of go all in with it. Just letting yourself, like, truly tell the kind of story that you want to tell is the best advice that I can give.
I would say that, like, if you look at comics as a whole, like you look at the comics that were important thirty years ago, twenty years ago, ten years ago, and now, there’s been a real shift away from a certain type of what was then considered, like, punk truth-telling. Like, back in the day, if you were to say, like, who’s like the rawest, truth-telling-ist cartoonist around? People would say someone like, Robert Crumb. Why Crumb? Because, like, he is, like, a gross white man, who’s being honest about how disgusting and- and racist he is, or whatever. You know, like, there was really the sense of, like, peeling back the respectable curtain and- and exposing the, like, foul underbelly or whatever.
Now, that foul underbelly is just out in the open, like, there’s nothing to be exposed. Everything that could be exposed or would have been scandalous in the past, is just, like, plainly on display right now. So, there’s been a bit of a cultural shift, in like the people who I now see as, like, the true punk truth tellers, are the people who are like, coming from a place of oppression and being honest about their experiences and, like, using their work to help other people, Higu Rose’s Tittychop Boobslash both a really beautifully executed comic and also kind of a roadmap for other people who might want to get top surgery and need to work with insurance.
Or, like, one of my favorite books from the past 20 or so years is, Susceptible, by Geneviève Castrée, who is unfortunately no longer with us. She was a cis-woman from an emotionally abusive childhood, and it’s, like, just her really, really beautiful defiant book about her upbringing and, like, how she got away from her parents and, like, it doesn’t end on note of, like, closure, in terms of, like, “Oh, I’ve reconciled with this.” It’s like very angry. Work like that is directly inspiring to me, because, like, there’s a sort of defiance in the past, this punk work, like the underground work was so focused on this idea that, like, everyone is rotten on the inside, and, like, the bravest thing you can do is just be as disgusting as possible, because, that’s real, man, you know?
But, like, I think that’s dumb. Like, I think that’s dumb bullshit. One of the bravest things you can do is show, like, extreme radical empathy and, like, try and be a voice for people in your situation, and an inspiration to people who are going through the same things that you went through. Like, that’s what’s useful right now, in, like, a very dark political time, where, like, a lot of aspects of, you know, trans life, are being literally outlawed. Work that builds community and a work that inspires resistance and resilience, like, those are the things that I value most in terms of, like, political artwork.
Muira: You can find more about Carta’s portfolio of work, as well as some supplementary material on the world of trans graphic comics on the Center for Media at Risk’s website.
Aaron: Thanks for listening, we’d like to thank Waldo Aguirre, Carta Monir, Emily Plowman, and Barbie Zelizer, Director for the Center of Media at Risk. The episode was produced by Muira McCammon and edited by me, Aaron Shapiro. More information can be found on the Center’s website, www.ascmediarisk.org.
- Read a review of Tittychop Boobslash that Carta wrote for The Comics Journal.
- Listen to her ever-popular podcast, We Should Be Friends.
- Reflect on the history of “third genders” in Indonesia by checking out this Atlas Obscura article
- Peruse this incredible roundup of trans, queer and non-binary comics published by Buzzfeed in 2017.
- Give yourself a half-hour to meditate on Carta’s recent publication for Polygon, a tale of loss, control and the unexpected objects that bond us.
- Watch Carta speak on the “Genderfluidity, Technology and Futurism” panel at SPX 2017.
- Don’t miss her performance at Zine Not Dead VI.
- Subscribe to Carta’s newsletter here or check out her portfolio of selfies.
- Give yourself a refresher on where Ann Arbor, Michigan is.
Son Lux: “All the Right Things” (theme)
Dieter Moebius: “Contramio”
Steve Gunn & Mike Gangloff: “Worry Past Worry”
Timber Timbre: “Grifting”
Zammuto: “Good Graces”
Khruangbin: “Two Fish and an Elephant” (Outro)
We’d love to hear from you, especially if you have stories about being trans and working in/with media. Feel free to record a voice memo on your smartphone and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org; you can also find us on Twitter at @ASCMediaRisk. Though we’re a small operation, we’re always open to pitches and new stories.
Carta Monir is a cartoonist and podcast host living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She works from home, owns a risograph machine and takes incredible selfies. Her pieces have appeared in Polygon, The Nib, and The A.V. Club.
This episode was produced by Muira McCammon and edited by Aaron Shapiro.